Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Binding of the Month Club

A certain cover design keeps popping into my head.  I like it for no other reason than … I like it!  I don’t know who the designer was; there are certainly more “elegant” designs; that really doesn’t matter.  If I had been browsing in a bookstore in 1902, that book with that cover would be leaving with me, and my $1.50 would be staying.  The point being that some covers just do that to you—make a strong initial impression and then stay with you.  Perhaps it’s an unusual cloth color, or an image that's hard to forget, or both, as with a cover from my June post.(1)  It might be a great example of a design style or what seems to be the representative cover by a certain designer.  It could be a train wreck that you can’t look away from, or something that makes you smile.

To celebrate those covers that either of us just like, our Binding of the Month Club begins this month.  (I considered calling it the B##k of the M#nth Cl#b, but that seems to be trademarked.  So we’ll skirt the edges of infringement with the help of our favorite noun.)

The first offering from the Club is the aforementioned head-popping design:

Hamblen, Herbert E.  The Red-Shirts: a Romance of the Old Volunteer Fire Department.  New York: Street & Smith, 1902.

What a cover!  The story, as far as I can tell, is that of our young hero Robert "Bob" Sinclair who moves from New Hampshire to an unnamed large city.  Here he becomes fascinated with the volunteer fire departments.  He is apprenticed as a stonemason (the same trade as his dour and cheap father) and in his teens becomes involved with volunteer fire department 19.  He has a sweetheart, Sallie Taylor.  And a dog!  A Saint Bernard puppy named Bruno who grows up in the firehouse.  He becomes foreman of the Niagara 50 company (Bob, that is, not Bruno), and rises to even greater glory. 

What follows is adventure! Heroics! Romance! Tragedy!  Nuanced examinations of character! Actually not so much of the last...

But there are "thrilling scenes" aplenty, as well as "jolly good humor" in abundance.  An advertisement from the Overland Monthly(2) sums it all up:

Herbert Hamblen.  Image
from Wikipedia
The author, Herbert Elliott Hamblen (1849-1908) was a civil engineer and an author, born in Ossippee, New Hampshire on Dec. 24, 1849.  He came to New York City as a child and later went to sea as a cabin boy.  After 14 years at sea, from 1864 to 1878, and rising to chief mate, he washed ashore and changed careers, becoming a railroad engineer from 1880 to 1894.  He then became a civil engineer for the New York City Aqueduct Department and began writing books in 1896(3).

It's a little hard to tell who the intended audience is ... general audience? young adults? "every old volunteer fireman"?  The 10 advertisements for other Street & Smith publications 
at the end of the novel aren't much help.  They  include 2 books for girls, 2 Alexandre Dumas novels, some "eerie tales of 'Chinatown'", a humorous insect book, (The Book of Bugs), and a book on ping pong, edited by a "ping pong expert", bound in silk cloth,  for only 50 cents!
But let's get back to the cover.  The cloth is a dark greenish-blue stamped with five  colors--black, red, white, tan, and light blue--and gold.  A large figure of a fireman carrying a speaking trumpet and apparently shouting to his right dominates the cover.  He's dressed in the titular red shirt and wears a fire hat with a large badge with the number 19 on it.  There is stylized smoke, or it might be clouds behind him.  The pictorial area is framed by a black line border.  On the spine is a fire bell with the silhouette of a building below it.  Both the front cover and spine are lettered in gold.  
Although it's not really visible in the picture above, the cloth has a fine (that is, narrow) vertical rib grain.  Books have been written about grained cloth, but suffice it to say that here the grained cloth not only gives the book both an interesting visual and physical texture, but emphasizes the orientation of the design.  This image of the back cover shows the grain more clearly.  
Notable in this design is the sense of movement.  The fireman is breaking out of the frame in four different directions: his left foot is so far "forward" that it rests between the first two words of the title with his heel almost resting on the serif of the "E" and his toes nearly supported by the letter "I" in the following line; his right elbow just about touches the black frame, while his hat does touch the upper frame; the mouthpiece of the speaking trumpet actually does push past the right frame.  The abbreviated image of "smoke" or perhaps clouds behind him outlines the silhouettes of buildings, and its lower continuation suggests that he might be running down a street.  When preparing a design it was important that the artist have at least some idea of the subject matter or story that was to be contained within the covers.  Ideally, she would have the text to examine before starting the design, since the object of the cover was not only to attract the eye, but to give the potential buyer an idea of what was inside the book.  No small task when he only had one image to accomplish all this.  Sometimes the design might reflect one aspect of the contents, or it could illustrate a representative or important scene.  Sometimes it might give a general impression of the genre (for example, a society novel), or it might simply be decorative.  I didn't need to scan the book for long to find that the unknown designer of this cover had a specific scene in mind.  Bob has recently arrived in the big city and pages 20-21 tell exactly what inspired the cover:

"As I wondered at what his words portended, a man carrying a brass trumpet came tearing around the corner, running in the middle of the street. He was by all odds the queerest figure I had yet seen.  He had on a leather hat, with the number 19 on a white shield in front. He also wore a fiery red shirt, and was running as if for dear life. He turned suddenly, put the trumpet to his mouth and called out something that I could not understand, but still kept on running."

Except for the white shield on the hat (on the cover it's red), there's the image.  

Why did I choose this cover?  Aside from thinking it's effective, eye-catching, and--most important--makes we want to read and thus buy the book, I find it a very nice example of the poster style of design.  I won't go into much detail on the poster style; books have also been written on that subject.  There's a nice essay on the poster style and publishers bindings at the University of Alabama's Publishers Bindings Online (PBO) site.  Briefly, although posters have been around for centuries, the 19th (and 20th) century illustrated poster style began in France and was taken up in America in the 1890s.  The “father” of the American poster was Edward Penfield (1866-1925), an artist who was born in Brooklyn and died in Beacon, N.Y.(4)  
Image from the Library of Congress.
Prints and Photographs Division
Edward Penfield.  Image from Wikipedia.
He worked from 1891 to 1901 at Harper and Brothers as an illustrator and art editor for the firm and his first poster, for the April issue of Harper's Magazine, appeared in 1893.(5)  His style has been described as effectively combining Art Nouveau, Japonisme, and Arts and Crafts "to create some of the finest posters, advertisements, and magazine covers of the 20th century."(6)  

(Our only Penfield cover in the American Publishers Trade Bindings collection.  Penfield signed his posters and illustrations with his initials, full name, or the "bull horns" monogram shown on the right)

Other publishers soon followed Harper in commissioning posters for their magazines and books, and within a few years America had succumbed to a full-blown "poster craze."  Collectors were enthusiastic and everywhere.  Although the publisher's intention was to use the poster as advertisement and sell more magazines and/or books, the success of the poster as advertisement rather than as a work of art was dubious. In 1896 a collector complained "I purchase the poster now when once I would purchase the book and I do not think my publishers profit thereby."(7)  People were buying or obtaining copies of posters from booksellers, publishers and other outlets, but were not rushing out to buy the books or magazines themselves.  By the end of the decade the publisher poster phenomenon had largely died out.  The designs were instead used on the magazine covers or books themselves.  The characteristic poster style began to appear on book covers towards the end of the 1890s, at the same time that posters themselves were in decline.  The style continued to appear on covers through the first three decades of the twentieth century until it, along with all other styles of cover design, finally succumbed to the dust jacket.  

Let's take another look at The Red-Shirts in comparison to the characteristics of poster style given by the PBO essay:  a bold design--check; a flat, two-dimensional look--check; limited color scheme--check, although 5 colors is in the upper reaches for a book cover; use of the cloth color as part of the image--check; a figural or narrative scene--check to both; stylized features--check; and close integration of image and text/typeface--check.  

Though the poster style came late to American art and even later to American book covers, it was very common by the turn of the century and even more prevalent in the early 1900s.  Many artists adopted it, at least for some of their designs, and for some it seems to be their preferred style.  Our collection contains many examples of this style.  We are now beginning to do some data cleanup and will begin to add "theme" and/or style headings to make it possible to search for such aspects of the designs (don't try searching yet as nothing has been added, but we'll keep everyone updated on our progress).  In the meantime, here are some illustrations of work from well known poster artists paired with one of their cover designs from the collection. 

Will Bradley, 1868-1962

                                                                                                                                                                             Ethel Reed, 1874-

Blanche McManus, 1869-1935

Louis Rhead, 1857-1926

And many others such as Elisha Brown Bird, Decorative Designers, Frank Hazenplug, J.C. Leyendecker, Florence Lundborg, Amy Sacker, and Frank Berkeley Smith.

Today, posters from the 1890s are scarce and expensive.  But designs from masters of poster art can also be seen on thousands of book covers.  We hope you'll browse our collection for covers designed by your favorite poster artist.  The only drawback to actually having some of these is that they're difficult to hang on the wall.

Please feel free to join in the Binding Club.  No obligations, no dues.  But do send us your choice for binding of the month.  Tell us why you like it (“just because” works for us).  And don’t forget to visit our online collection at American Publishers’ Trade Bindings.


(2) Overland Monthly, Nov. 1902, p. iv.  Viewed online.  
(3) New York Times, Jan. 15, 1910.  "Queries and Answers", p. 34.  Viewed online.
(4) A quick pause to admire the name "Penfield" for an artist.  It's the same pleasure found in a fishmonger named "Salmon," or a dentist named "Toothaker."  Imagine my joy when I found that Penfield studied under George de Forest Brush!
(5) The Library of Congress has a large number of posters digitized.  See in particular their Artist Posters collection at  All poster images are taken from this digital collection.
(6) Who Was Who in American Art, 1564-1975. Madison, Conn.: Sound View Press, 1999.
(7) American art posters of the 1890s in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987, p. 51. Cited in Nancy Finlay’s essay, "American Posters and Publishing in the 1890s," which is particularly valuable for this context.